Using scientific techniques to improve your sport skills

I work on a brain training games website and brain training app in iOS and brain training app on android, I get to interact with a lot of brain researchers who work in this field and I have read quite a few papers on improving one’s skills in various fields. I play table tennis regularly and have noticed players spending lots of time on trying to improve their game without assessing if their practice actually works.

I have a few thoughts on how one can use some scientific techniques to raise one’s level in certain sports. While the article will focus on table tennis these techniques can be applied to other sports as well. There are lots of websites like pingskills and youtube videos on how to improve your technique or how to practice a skill so I will not talk about the practice part but will mostly focus on how to set up your practice and track your progress.

I would like to take the analogy of the leaky bucket from the traction book. You can think of your current game as a leaky bucket at first your game will be very leaky because of the lack of your skills ,as a consequence much of the practice you put in will leak out of the bucket . This is the part where most players go wrong , they think this is a waste of time but this process is telling you where the leaks are in your game and how to fix this.

We have all heard of the 10000 hour rule, The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. The key here is “deliberate practice” , there is no point in doing the same things when you are not able to fix your leaks. I have seen quiet a few players who spend time doing the same things only to be disappointed by the results

Most players do not have the time to train like professionals, they are either working or studying and have limited time to practice . One of the things that startups teach you is to be creative with the resources you have so what ever your position is you can actually “Train smarter” with what ever time you invest on practice by planning your training using some useful techniques.

Want to improve something specific ? the secret is in your head

Visualization is a cognitive technique that involves creating a detailed picture of your action . For example visualizing the swing of your paddle while hitting a topspin, with details as such weight of racquet, contact point , brushing of the ball , the rotation of the trunk , the finish point, getting back into position .

The way this works is that when we practice a movement, say topspin, our brain cells are activated in a specific patterns made up of a series of neural connections. The more we practice the stronger these connections become, resulting in better performance. Practicing visualization activates the same neural connections as the practice does . You can perfect your technique without any external action.

A study conducted at the University of Western Ontario showed the benefits of visualization for both beginner and varsity soccer players. First, all players were shown a soccer drill — dribbling through cones and shooting the ball at a target — and were allowed to practice it. The players were split up into two groups one group used visualization techniques while the other group were instructed to write down a detailed plan of how to best approach the soccer drill, but were not instructed to use visualization techniques.

At the end of the study, both beginners and varsity players in the experimental group showed improvement on the soccer drill. Not only could they perform the drill better than they had at the beginning of the study, they also performed significantly better than the players in the control group

Another study from the Netherlands found that participants who imagined themselves lifting weights produced actual changes in muscle activity, while a review that looked at twenty-one studies showed that visualization caused significant improvement in various motor performance skills compared to control conditions.

Olympic freestyle skier and gold medalist Jennifer Heil credits visualization with helping her prepare for competition, stating that she has never gone into a race or performed a jump without visualizing it first

Try it out yourself

  • Find a quiet space where you can sit down and close your eyes.
  • breathe in through you nose and out through your mouth for at least 10 times and once you are done breath normally and relax
  • Bring to mind the image of yourself performing a sports task you want to improve, for example, making a forehand topspin in table tennis. Focus on the colors, textures and even the smells of the image, trying to make it as detailed as you can. From your start position , body twist , racket swing start position, trunk rotation , contact point of the ball, follow through , finish position of the paddle, arms relaxed , back to ready position .
  • Repeat two or three times a week. There is no right or wrong way to do this so do not stress on trying to get it perfect . The idea is to do this in a mindful way

• Be realistic do not compare yourself to professionals like Ma long or Timo boll .

If you cannot track you cannot measure

One of the basic things we do in startups before we try out something is to figure out a way to measure.

For example if we want to advertise our website we set up a google analytics account to see if the advertisement actually worked by keeping a track of how many visitors came to the page along with other page usage details. How many players actually measure their practice/matches. How many hours did you play this week ? What did you focus on each session? Where are you making errors in matches ?

Fortunately, there are lots of tools out there , I would recommend Table tennis match mobile application on iOS and Android by yours truly to capture some of this data for further analysis of your game. You can use a plain excel sheet if you do not have a smart phone . Once you record these details over time you can see what areas you are working on regularly and what is missing in your practice.

Record yourself playing

I was coaching someone at a match the other day , he lost the match and afterward when we were discussing he mentioned that he lost because he did not receive well. I had watched the whole match and while he did some mistakes while receiving serves , that was just one of the reasons he lost but in his mind it seemed to be the main reason .The Human brain can only hold a few things at a given point of time so in order to be sure about what your mistakes are, record yourself while playing a match and then try to figure out where you lost points by analyzing the video. Go with something that you can analyze rather than depending on what you remember after the match . Even experienced coaches have a capacity of what they can remember so it is better to always use a recorded session to figure out your mistakes. I would also recommend to occasionally record practice sessions as you will get a lot of insights on the mistakes you make in practice.

Use mindfulness training

Ever felt that you loose to players well below your skill level ?. One of the causes is your mind is racing with a lot of thoughts or you feel stressed and your muscles tighten up . Try mindful meditation series on brainturk.com . This research show mindfulness training reduces mind wandering and improves GRE performance. If you want more audio’s on mindful training and visualization use the brainturk contact page and let me know . If there is enough demand I will add additional audio series on the website as well as the existing mobile apps on iOS , Android and Amazon

regular vs random practice

What percent of time do you do regular drills and how much of it is practice drills ? Do you combine both these to get the best of your training sessions ? Read this article on rote vs random drills

Along with your regular practice if you spend a few minutes a day to note down , analyze and use other techniques to supplement your practice drills. you will be able to improve at a faster pace rather than going through the motions of practice.

Be creative

I used to practice taekwondo when i was in the US , In taekwondo you practice certain forms like palguay and taeguk , check out my android app on taekwondo forms . One of the ways our master used to teach us this form is first we would repeat the forms and once we were comfortable he would ask us to close our eyes and do the form . This was really challenging and we used to end up in a different location when we completed it with our eyes closed but this was really useful.

You can use the same technique when doing shadow play or practice service in table tennis just to see how good you are . Do shadow practice of strokes/movement with your eyes closed and record that and observe how different you do with your eyes closed . please be careful when you do shadow play with your eyes closed and make sure you do not bump into anything and hurt yourself.

What to do in between points

Sports psychologists are expensive and in some cases are not accessible but there are some good resources on this . I would recommend the book Get your game face on like the pros! by dora kurimay who has been a table tennis player and goes in detail on how to prepare for matches and tough situations and how to plan and focus in a match.